If you’re in the lighting business anywhere in the U.S. – including Hawaii and Alaska – you already know who Ferguson is. But do you know how they’ve become such formidable competition? Much of it comes down to their comprehensive training program that encourages everyone on staff to keep reaching higher.
Store owners all know the importance of educating staff members on products, customer service, and company policy; however, not many have a well-organized program in place. Over the past 63 years that Ferguson has been in business – originally in the commercial and residential plumbing sector and eventually expanding into HVAC/R, fireplaces, kitchens, baths, appliances, and lighting – it has kept the program evolving to stay abreast with the industry’s changes. This consistency is what allows the company – which has grown to 1,400 locations with more than 20,000 associates – to have everyone on the same page.
Whether you have one store or several, it’s worth investing the time and energy in creating official guidelines that everyone can adhere to easily. Although it’s an $11-billion company today, even Ferguson started out as a local distributor in the 1950s.
What can you learn from them? Plenty! Does your store have a tagline that expresses to both clients and staff alike what the company stands for? The slogan “Nobody expects more from us than we do” is a core tenet that Ferguson employees carry through in their day-to-day interactions with customers.
Cast Your Net Wisely
Understandably, Ferguson is so large that it needs – and actively utilizes – a designated Recruiting department. Instead of placing a Classified Ad online, or in the local newspaper, or posting a sign in the window, has your lighting showroom participated in the job fairs held at your local schools? Ferguson has had great success in finding career employees that way.
“We regularly recruit talented entry-level professionals from colleges and universities nationwide,” notes Mark McNitt, Director of Training. “Recent and soon-to-be college graduates can jumpstart their future by taking advantage of the exciting career opportunities Ferguson has to offer. Our extensive training programs provide the opportunity to gain knowledge and expertise that serve as the foundation of a career across a number of areas within our company.”
Establish a Program
Another distinguishing factor is that Ferguson looks for good employees constantly; it’s not necessarily to fill a specific position. The training program is extensive; it’s not for hiring someone on a Friday to start on Monday.
What does Ferguson look for? According to McNitt, a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent in military service is required for all of the company’s training programs. “The ideal candidate must possess a strong work ethic, diverse communication skills, a drive to succeed, confidence, trustworthiness, attention to details, and the willingness and ability to take the initiative,” he adds.
And in all truth, there are Ferguson employees who began their careers at a young age and worked their way up to executive management. “We promote from within,” McNitt comments. “All of our CEOs started their careers in this rigorous program. One of the attractive features of working for Ferguson is the variety of career options available, and our training focuses on hands-on experience as well as continuous education. The program provides our associates with the opportunity to explore facets of the company that could fit their personal skills and interests.”
While larger lighting showroom chains like Capitol Lighting and Lamps Plus have established extensive training programs, there are many more small lighting stores who haven’t. Some might move employees around to different departments as situations arise, but there’s often not an “official” program in place.
Cross-Training: Not Just for Sneakers
Among the benefits of having a well-rounded training program – where new hires spend time in different departments learning about what’s involved in each – is a greater understanding of the company as a whole, discovery of an untapped interest or proclivity, plus the ability to pinch-hit with customer assistance when other employees are absent or busy.
For each showroom with an established program, the duration of the training varies. At Ferguson, the [management] program is guided by a 12-month syllabus which provides a roadmap for the trainee and their manager. How many weeks a trainee spends in each department is not set in stone. Rather, it is fluid to allow for flexibility and is adapted based on schedules, market dynamics, and the trainee’s pace of development. “It is expected that the trainee will complete the syllabus within their first year,” McNitt states. “Their progression through each phase of the training will vary and is guided locally.”
On the Ferguson sales floor, associates are trained to provide qualified help in all of the departments — including lighting. Most associates at each location have undergone the American Lighting Association (ALA) training for the Lighting Associate designation. Additionally, there is typically one or two ALA-accredited Certified Lighting Consultants (CLC) on staff. However, Ferguson has taken lighting education for its employees a step further, hiring renowned lighting educator Joe Rey-Barreau to develop a proprietary program for the company.
“Lighting is a core product category [for us]. As such, we consistently train our associates in lighting – as we do with all product categories – to be the most knowledgeable sales consultants in the industry,” McNitt remarks. “We believe by doing so they are amply rewarded with not only sales opportunities, but career development. Some of our associates choose to remain in sales throughout their entire career with Ferguson. They develop longstanding relationships and skills that make them the go-to in the marketplace. Others develop skills and interests that create growth channels into other areas of our company that are equally rewarding.”
Who Pays for Training
There are a variety of ways that lighting stores across the country handle the high cost of training programs offered by the IES, ALA, and NCQLP. Some companies absorb the cost of training regardless, and suffer a loss when the associate either loses interest or leaves the company shortly after. Others will pay for an associate to undergo the extensive lighting training, but ask in return for the employee to remain with the store for up to two years. And some ask the employee to pay the cost initially, but reimburse the individual once the coursework has been completed and the certification achieved.
Ferguson follows the first example, paying for the exams and training with no contract or official agreement involved. “Our culture of creating/providing career opportunities for our top performers [is what] incentivizes associates to commit to a personal learning and development plan,” McNitt says. “We believe that the investment which we make in training is a positive for our associates, our customers, and the industry.”
Lighting – because of the now constantly evolving technology and the complexity of the various systems – is undoubtedly one of the more daunting categories a Ferguson associate can choose to tackle (and there is no financial incentive per se for an employee to specialize in lighting versus any other category offered by Ferguson). However, many are signing on for the challenge.
Claire Reichenberger, who works in Northern California and Northern Nevada showrooms, selected the lighting training and is appreciative of the knowledge base it has given her. “The training was not harder than I expected; however, it did require an investment in time,” she explains. “It is comprehensive training that continues to grow as the market and industry change. Today there are so many changes with greater focus on energy savings and new codes that you must continue to educate yourself or you will not provide your client with the knowledge and world-class customer service they deserve.”
Heather Thomas, CLC, who works in South Florida showrooms, agrees. “I say that I didn’t choose lighting, but rather lighting chose me. I began my career at Ferguson by hanging lights part-time while I was in college. I started talking to the consultants who were on staff and became really interested in the category.”
Reichenberger also truly loves the field. “I enjoy the art of lighting, the progression of trends, and how new technology in lighting can benefit us and our lifestyles,” she recounts, adding that working in California [with all of its changing regulations regarding lighting and energy] has made it vital to stay on top of what’s happening in the industry. “I have continued my education because I want to be very knowledgeable in all product categories we distribute,” she comments.
When LEDs and solid-state lighting started growing in popularity and evolving as a technology, Thomas says her interest in the topic heightened. “I really jumped on-board with LED,” she remarks. “We have a really good network of people, including the lighting reps, who help us expand our knowledge in the field.”
The availability of having fellow associates who are incredible resources for product knowledge across all categories is one of the qualities both Reichenberger and Thomas point to as being beneficial to their dedication in thoroughly helping customers with projects big and small.
After all, no matter which showroom you might work in or operate, that should be the ultimate goal of all of your employees. If you don’t have a training plan yet, be sure to budget time to create one before the end of the fourth quarter so you can start 2016 with greater momentum for surpassing prior sales records.